Less than a week ago, amid the glitz and glamor of AT&T Stadium, the Big 12 media days were a jovial event.
Masks were mostly avoided. Handshakes were encouraged. The smiles, the laughter and even the hugs were there. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley spoke to members of the media, and Commissioner Bob Bowlsby celebrated his conference cohesion – they stayed together for a season in the midst of pandemic, fought the elements and came out even stronger.
Or at least he thought so.
“A motivation for expanding or realigning the conference,” he said last Wednesday, “it’s gone, or just not here yet.”
A week later, the Big 12 leaders try to preserve the league as Texas and Oklahoma are on the verge of leaving the conference. The presidents of the Big 12 are orchestrating a last ditch effort to convince the two schools to stay, or at least to investigate the reasons for their imminent departure.
Texas and Oklahoma administrators did not join their brothers on a joint conference call Thursday night to discuss the issue with league athletic directors and school presidents – a stark snub that testifies to their inevitable exit. The first destination is the SEC, a league that both programs have contacted in recent weeks. The Longhorns, however, might have at least one other option, according to sources: the ACC.
Both schools have described their intentions with the SEC as “exploratory,” according to sources within the Big 12. But conference leaders believe it is much more serious. In fact, the Big 12 firmly expect the Longhorns, the leaders of this latest realignment, to announce their departure soon, with Oklahoma up close.
“I would say Texas is definitely gone and probably Oklahoma,” says one administrator.
Senior college football officials spoke with Illustrated sports for this story on condition of anonymity as the subjects are so sensitive. The Big 12 released a statement Thursday evening saying the “eight members are very keen to retain the league’s current makeup” and that the league would require those leaving to “adhere” to the Big 12 rights grant, which runs up to ‘in 2025..
Both schools can pay a fine for breaking the contract earlier – around $ 70 million each – or wait for the agreement to expire, a move that could create four tough years of athletics with two lameducks. Although expected, a move to the SEC is not guaranteed. The expansion requires a vote of three quarters of conference members, or 11 of 14 teams. Texas A&M is the only school to have publicly expressed its opposition.
The revenue split between the SEC teams is expected to remain the same, or very similar, in a 16-team conference as is currently the case. So why would middle-level or lower-level SEC programs agree to admit two powerful programs that they play at least once, if not twice a year? The excitement and prestige of Oklahoma and Texas playing in your stadium is not lost on athletic directors and conference school presidents, especially during a time of financial uncertainty – the resumption of COVID- 19 and the drop in attendance.
“As I tell rookies all the time, we’re the best league in college football and everyone wants to play in it,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “Now you have two iconic brands who also want to join. It’s an exclusive club and not everyone comes in, so good luck, especially if A&M was involved.
Meanwhile, Bowlsby, one of varsity sport’s most respected leaders, attempts to keep the eight remaining schools together, an incredibly difficult mission in the midst of a transformative year in varsity athletics. The move from Texas and Oklahoma is expected to trigger a vast wave of nationwide realignment, which could end in two ways: (1) the complete dismantling of the Big 12 conference and the founding of four superconferences, each with up to 16 teams; or (2) a rebuilt Big 12 with two to four new members who were in all likelihood looted from the American Athletic Conference.
Do Big 12 teams become the hunter (option 2) or the hunted (option 1)?
“There is a path to survival,” says a source. “It can be done.”
In the search for a rebuilt Big 12 (Option 2), the goal is to make additions that would maintain the conference among the Autonomy 5, giving it more legislative freedom and, more importantly, retaining its ties to the Bowl of the New Year Six. Games. Those with a geographic and financial sense are Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, and maybe SMU. There are other outliers that reign at the top of the Group of 5, such as UCF, BYU, and Boise State. Either way, the Big 12’s media rights deal is set to see some big changes with the departure of its two top-grossing programs.
Option 1 could reshape varsity sport. Panicked and frightened, some members of the Big 12 could emerge from a league in shambles. The Pac-12 has four free places to reach the 16-team mark. The ACC and the Big Ten have two each. West Virginia is already geographically more aligned with the ACC, and Kansas is a basketball boon for any league, despite their failures in football. Baylor’s men’s basketball just won the national championship, and TCU has the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
If the Big 12 isn’t quick enough with its rebuilding, schools could disperse.
“Uncertainty creates instability,” says a college athletic director.
And so, a week after Bowlsby expressed his certainty about the stability of the Big 12, the conference collapsed in the winds of change. A year ago, the savior of college football for refusing to follow in the footsteps of the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, the existence of the Big 12 is in danger.
“It’s not imminent, but it’s true that they’ve reached out to explore the possibility of joining the SEC,” said a Big 12 official. “If they’re gone, we start Plan B. “
More college football coverage:
• The SEC, NCAA and a fight to change college sport
• SEC faces worrying vaccination trends as football season approaches
• Rose Bowl throws wrench into college football playoff expansion plan
• Director’s Cup reshuffle highlights impact of pandemic on varsity athletics